This chemistry professor turned university president shows when it comes to innovation in higher education, the best change agent is collaboration
“Wow, you can do a lot with chemistry,” thought 10-year-old Alaa. His experiment—making light from lemons, wires, a lightbulb and a few other supplies found around his home in Cairo, Egypt—had worked. But it was the unintended reaction that proved to be Alaa’s real eureka moment: the science lesson sparked his lifelong passion for chemistry.
That passion was cemented in the classroom eight years later. By then a second-year undergraduate student at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Alaa had accepted his professor’s challenge to deliver a two-hour lecture to his peers on a relatively new theory in his field. Alaa took a month to prepare, practicing his lecture at least 20 times.
“I wanted to show my classmates that I can take this idea and put it simply,” says Alaa.
If a young Alaa thought communicating new chemistry concepts was challenging, it’s because he didn’t yet know what lay ahead in the boardroom and beyond. Today, Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz is president and vice-Chancellor at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI).
“Universities are complex organizations to govern or lead even though they’ve existed for centuries—longer than most corporate entities, but even with their longevity and their ability to see their way through difficult times, they’re hard to govern,” says Pat Sinnott. Sinnott chairs the UPEI Board of Governors and is the retired executive vice-president of Supply Chain and Technology with Canadian Tire.
Without question, it takes a lot to nudge the needle of change at venerable post-secondary institutions. Alaa, however, isn’t just nudging the needle, he’s spinning the whole dial. At UPEI, Alaa is praised for setting and attaining ambitious goals and doing so at the speed of business. Holding UPEI’s top job for nearly a decade, Alaa has spurred the university to create a slew of future-focused programming, establish a footprint on three continents and garner higher student enrolments.
The great education experiment
From the minute he was given the opportunity, Alaa adored sharing his passion through teaching. He thought if everyone could love chemistry as much as he did, then they would more readily master its principles. But in the same way Alaa’s aha! moment came from making light from lemons, he realized meaningful learning was more about demonstrating purpose than strictly communicating passion. In other words, once his students appreciated the real-world application of their learning, that’s when the science stuck. In the same way, Alaa realized innovation comes from combining one’s passion for new concepts with their practical application.
“Innovation is really a creative way of working, based on a strong research foundation, that takes a new idea and makes it reality,” says Alaa. “I believe if we use our imagination, we are being innovative.”
At UPEI, Alaa’s innovative think- ing has leapfrogged into innovative programming where students have the opportunity to solve many community and industry challenges in a unique undergraduate program. The university’s Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering (FSDE) is the gold standard of experiential learning at UPEI. The specific example Alaa offers couldn’t be more relevant to P.E.I.
“When you look at farmed oysters,” he says, “our students found a way mechanically to rotate the oyster cages.”
Known for their oysters worldwide, P.E.I. harvesters have long had to contend with a back-breaking problem. Farmed by the hundreds, in hundreds of cages, healthy oysters require water circulation, requiring the cages to be regularly disrupted. At 200 pounds a cage, that makes for heavy lifting. So, in 2017, a team of students in the FSDE program engineered an oyster cage flipper. With support from the university, the students demonstrated proof-of-concept, patented their idea, then launched their own company, Island AquaTech Inc.
Another example is the newly launched Doctor of Psychology program, which launched last fall. The Psychological Association of P.E.I. (PAPEI), a core partner in the doctoral program, quantified the human resource challenge for psychologists, finding the Island has the second-lowest number of psychologists per capita among Canadian provinces. The newly-launched clinical psychology program at UPEI should help alleviate these concerns; it’s thought that developing skilled professionals on the Island increases the chances they’ll service the Island. At the program’s announcement, PAPEI past-president, Dr. Nadine DeWolfe, credited the “strong and personal leadership” of Alaa for addressing the province’s needs in “a significant way:”
“He has been deeply engaged in the planning process,” said Dr. DeWolfe, “challenging the department to always look for the best ways to make the biggest difference: ‘Don’t you worry about the money—leave that to me; you just make the best program.’”
Yet another program example is the School of Climate Change and Adaptation. It enrolled its first undergraduate students last fall and will be housed in the new Canadian Centre of Climate Change and Adaptation in St. Peter’s Bay, granting access to nearby wetlands, forests and coastal habitats. The federal and provincial governments, along with the university, have backed this capital project, slated to open in 2021.
“The Centre will form a cluster of discovery in the areas of coastal impacts and health of populations and industry, mobilizing expertise for application on P.E.I., in Canada and around the world,” Alaa said when the research centre was announced in July 2019.
The opening of the new Centre broadens UPEI’s footprint on the island beyond Charlottetown.
Expanding the university’s geographical reach has become an Alaa trademark. The university now has a presence on three continents. Besides North America, UPEI is in Africa at its UPEI Cairo campus (Egypt) and in Europe through a collaboration with Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Spain) to offer a Master of Global Affairs, where students spend four months at UPEI (Charlottetown) and eight months in Madrid, Strasbourg and Geneva. These opportunities can be directly linked to Alaa’s international connections and his strong belief in the outstanding education delivered through UPEI’s curriculum, which Alaa says, is a model around the world.
The university as a whole has grown too—from four faculties (of arts, science, education and veterinary medicine) and two schools (of nursing and business) to eight faculties (the four existing ones and new faculties of nursing, business, sustainable design engineering and graduate studies) and two schools (mathematical and computational sciences and climate change and adaptation). In Charlottetown, the campus landscape continues to grow too, not only with new buildings but renovations to existing ones meant to preserve the rich history of UPEI.
None of this success surprises Jackie Podger, UPEI’s vice-president Administration and Finance. Podger has worked with Alaa for 14 years at UBC and was his first hire at UPEI. The pair have an established way of working together: he, the visionary; she, the doer. She uprooted her life, leaving a similar role at University of British Columbia Okanagan to move more than 5,300-kilometres to work with Alaa at UPEI.
“It was a big move,” Podger says, “but I knew what I was getting into.”
When the pair were at UBC, Alaa was the associate vice-president and chief operating officer, Academic and Research and later Provost but he also maintained an academic position and supervised around 10 graduate students.
“I don’t know if people understood his work ethic or what they were getting when they hired him here,” says Podger, “but they pretty soon realized that he is in it for the long haul and he’s in it to make a difference. There’s no more of, ‘Well, we always did it this way.’ No, it’s going to be different and it’s going to be for the better.”
What drives Alaa in his administrative career are the same factors that inspired his academic one—the potential he saw in mentorship and program innovation.
“By going into administration, I hoped I could be someone who would help my colleagues fulfill their full potential. My goal has been to inject the question, ‘how can we innovate’ in all that we do—to think about different ways of teaching, learning and looking at programs. And posing this question has worked very, very well—from being a child, loving chemistry, to where I am today.”
Alaa’s success is also rooted in a we’re-in-this-together approach. That’s been the case from day one, Pat Sinnott says, when Alaa took up the UPEI presidency nearly a decade ago. “Alaa seized the initiative,” Sinnott says, “and he said, ‘You know what? Universities are part of a community, of the local community and the global community. I’ve got to get to know everybody and I’ve got to spend a year listening.’ He travelled everywhere throughout Prince Edward Island listening to people up west, down east, listening to all the stakeholders in the communities, the medical community, the veterinary community, the secondary schools, mayors, community leaders of various kinds, you name it, Alaa went to great lengths to chat with them.”
It was the right move, Sinnott says, who adds Alaa had big shoes to fill upon arrival (“really big shoes,” he repeats). Everyone knew Alaa’s predecessor, Wade MacLauchlan, who went on to become the province’s premier. But to Alaa’s credit, he put in the work, pounding the pavement across P.E.I. until he knew everyone the same way they would come to know him—on a first-name basis. Alaa’s community engagement was never about winning people over. No, his desire to know his Island community came from a place of wanting to develop shared understanding—a lesson he learned from his father, also a teacher.
“My father always told me, if you understand the culture and geographical nature and the history of a community, then you’ll be able to interact very well with this community,” says Alaa.
The Honourable Catherine Callbeck, a former premier of the province and former Canadian senator, knows this community inside and out. Since taking on the role of UPEI’s Chancellor a couple of years ago, she’s come to appreciate Alaa’s passionate energy.
“I certainly admire his leadership qualities,” Callbeck says. “He’s a great listener, highly consultative and inclusive. Alaa thrives on bringing people together to collaborate on ideas.”
Callbeck offers Alaa’s strategic planning process as an exemplar of his collaborative-style. She says he has a strong relationship with all levels of government, and he worked together with university faculty, staff, alumni, donors and industry counterparts to arrive at not one, but two rounds of strategic planning. The first strategic plan took the university to 2018, while the second is underway and guides the university to 2023. Shared visions and common goals are foundational to both plans, says Callbeck, made possible through Alaa’s dedicated collaboration.
That shared visioning process is precisely what landed Alaa a Senate of Canada Sesquicentennial Medal last year. The medals, which commemorate the first occasion senators went to Ottawa to sit in Parliament 150 years ago, recognize individuals for making their communities a better place to live. The Honourable Brian Francis, Senator for P.E.I., acknowledged Alaa with a medal, noting his highly collaborative strategic planning process, which has guided UPEI in the development of future-focused, industry- and community-linked programming that teaches skills in increasingly experiential ways.
Action and reaction
Under Alaa’s leadership, UPEI’s student body has increased by over 15 per cent between 2014-15 and 2019-20 and its number of international students has grown to 30 per cent of total enrolment. By comparison, over the same period, Ontario universities saw, on average, a five per cent increase in student enrolments, while Atlantic Canadian universities saw, on average, about a four per cent increase. When it comes to the international student cohort, they average 24.5 per cent of enrolments in Atlantic Canadian universities, putting UPEI above the average. While this translates to about a 50 per cent jump (from approximately 12,000 to more than 19,000 students) across regional universities, it represents an almost 100 per cent increase (from 700 to nearly 1,400 students) at UPEI.
Recognizing the important role international students play in diversifying the campus and enriching the larger community, one of Alaa’s first moves upon his arrival at UPEI was establishing the International Relations Office. Not only did he build international relationships with universities around the globe, he became personally involved in student recruitment. Today, UPEI is well-known for its diversity as it’s become home for students from over 90 countries.
Alaa understands first-hand what it’s like to be in those students’ shoes. Thirty-five years ago, in the mid-eighties, he became an international student when, after completing his B.Sc. and M.Sc, in chemistry in Egypt, he moved to Canada for his doctoral studies. His only reference point to his new home was what he saw on television during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. When Alaa left Cairo in February 1985, he left behind 20-plus degree temperatures. In Saskatoon, he arrived to minus 20.
When the professor who met Alaa at the airport offered him a tuque, Alaa initially declined. “I realized I had to be protected from the weather in Canada with a coat, but I didn’t know you had to cover your head too. It’s not something I would have ever thought. But the minute the door of the airport opened, I ran to the car. I wore a hat every day after that,” he laughs.
The other surprise was the noise. “Cairo had a population of 10 million. It’s a 24-hour-city. It’s crowded. There’s traffic.” But on Friday, March 1, 1985 in Saskatoon, Alaa was stunned with what he saw during his commute on his first day at the University of Saskatchewan. He remembers well the conversation with a colleague:
What is going on? Is it a national holiday? Alaa asked puzzlingly.
Why? the colleague replied.
There is nobody in the street, Alaa said.
Actually, it’s rush hour, the colleague quipped.
Jokes aside, Saskatoon proved especially kind to Alaa. Beyond being the place where he obtained his doctoral degree, it’s where he met his future wife Valerie and his extended family—mostly ranchers and farmers from southern Saskatchewan. Married 33 years this past August, the couple, along with their two sons, Ahmad and Kareem, have spent considerable time in the prairie province, particularly Swift Current—a place that’s become Alaa’s home away from home.
Now, in the most demanding role of his career, Alaa maintains connections to what brought him to Saskatchewan and this country in the first place—chemistry. He’s a fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada and an expert on “inorganic and organometallic polymers and materials,” which is an area so broad, it informs developments from biomedicine to engineering to communication and more. He continues to teach too, delivering an undergraduate course at UPEI, where he also supervises graduate students and maintains a research laboratory.
Since students are Alaa’s top priority, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he immediately thought about their welfare, especially those most disadvantaged. Canadian data show that in March 2020, the number of post-secondary working students, aged 15-29, dropped by 28 per cent from February 2020. With school interruptions and limited prospects for work and income, students needed supports to bridge the gaps. On April 22, the federal government announced $9 billion in supports for post-secondary students and recent graduates affected by the pandemic. But the supports targeted domestic students, leaving international students vulnerable.
That’s why Alaa made a swift decision to allocate funding to support UPEI’s international students. Garnering additional support from the Province of P.E.I., by late March the university had launched an online application process, putting money in students’ pockets for food, rent or other necessities within days of application approval. UPEI also kept student residences open—a helpful decision for international students unable to return home during the pandemic.
In the same way, Alaa was quick to offer assurances to UPEI’s faculty and staff, the largest workforce in UPEI’s history (after all, they need the staffing to keep up with growing program delivery and student enrolment).
“I did not want the faculty, staff or students to feel that we are under pressure for the next few weeks until they finish their exams,” Alaa said back in March. “One of the decisions that I made is everybody is going to get paid until the end of the semester regardless of their position. We assured them to go home, stay at home, you will get paid, work as much as you can and we are supporting you.”
Fast-forward to July and so far, Alaa remains confident in UPEI’s pandemic response and outcomes. While there’s good reason to question how UPEI could possibly continue its upward trend under this year’s circumstances, the president says summer enrolment was actually up by seven per cent. Alaa is reticent to share guestimates for September’s turnout (to be fair, his last interview was mid-July), but he has every reason to believe, based on current numbers, enrolment will be on par with last year. If there is decreased enrolment (and this is expected to be the case for many post-secondary institutions), it’s likely to happen among first-year and international students, particularly those who have already left the province (P.E.I.’s Education minister, Brad Trivers, recently suggested more than half of UPEI’s international students have weathered the pandemic in the province, rather than returning home).
Alaa credits several factors for his optimism—the province’s overall success in thus-far managing the pandemic; a two per cent provincial budget increase for the university this year; a strong student recruitment campaign; and a commitment to offer a combination of online and face-to-face programming for returning students in the fall.
“Sometimes we cook together, even now,” Alaa says. He’s talking about his mother and how they’ve managed to maintain close ties despite being an ocean and a sea apart. The two talk every day, often by video. When they cook, they frequently add ingredient for ingredient, some from their own gardens. He usually makes a trip home to Cairo to see her, now 85-years-young, at least once a year. But he hasn’t been able to visit this year. “Not yet,” he says (the pandemic has run interference, but he’s not ruling out the possibility). But Alaa is hopeful. He knows a thing or two about surviving distance from loved ones—he did that many moons ago when he first left Egypt for Canada.
He’s also learned that optimism is an important motivating factor. Thinking back to his formative years, Alaa says his mother would ask him about his studies every day. The practice kept him focused on the future. Just like that day he made light from lemons, Alaa is convinced the future is bright.
Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz of the University of Prince Edward Island, a worthy recipient of Atlantic Business Magazine’s Innovator of the Year award for 2020. •